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Booze clues: why do we drink the way we do?

Whether we're celebrating, commiserating, relaxing or regrouping, our reaction to alcohol is dictated by expectations as well as choice of tipple. Kat Austen steps up to the bar

 

''What noise does Tintin make?"

"Pop!" answers my excitable three-year-old nephew, as my father - who prefers "Tintin" to "grandad" - squeezes the cork from a champagne bottle. It has become a tradition in my family, cracking open a bottle of champagne on Christmas Day - yours too, perhaps. It is the drink of celebration, after all. Sure enough, before long our banter is as bubbly as the contents of our glasses.

What if we had drunk neat gin instead? Chances are we would have become fed up or feisty rather than festive. What about beer? Sleepy or rowdy. Cider? Don't even ask. It is common knowledge that alcohol's effects depend not just on how much we drink, but what we drink, too. Is there any science behind this notion, though? Time we distilled some facts.

The scientific literature on the subject is surprisingly sparse. A review in 1996 of the existing research concluded that, for the same dose of alcohol, brandy impairs us more than beer, and makes us more aggressive and emotional - although beer drinkers tend to have more long-term alcohol-related problems and are more likely to drink and drive. An earlier study, in 1975, gave 40 male students bourbon or vodka and then "provoked" them with electric shocks. While all the students administered stronger shocks in return the more they had drunk, the vodka drinkers were much more aggressive.

Why might that be? One possible answer lies in a drink's "congeners". These molecules originate either in the plants used to make the booze or as a by-product of the fermentation process, and give a wine, beer or spirit its distinctive taste. Congeners, rather than ethanol itself, are often blamed for the length and severity of hangovers - high-congener alcohols such as bourbon make you feel much worse the morning after than does vodka, which has virtually none.

There is some evidence that congeners might influence intoxication directly, too. In 2009, Jose Andrade, at the University of Porto, in Portugal, got some mice tanked up on red wine. He showed that congeners in it - antioxidant polyphenols, to be precise - help to counteract the damage ethanol does to the brain's hippocampus. The red wine left the mice with a better sense of direction than those fed the same concentration of ethanol in water.

But there was bad news for fans of Andrade's local tipple. Port, which has an ethanol content of about 20 per cent, seems to be almost as potent as a solution of ethanol of the same strength when it comes to frazzling your hippocampus - a fact that Andrade puts down to the higher concentration of sugar in the drink. If you are a port drinker, best to always take a taxi home.

Connoisseurs of a wee dram might do well to keep their unit counts lower, too. Takashi Hasebe, of Nippon Medical School, in Tokyo, Japan, has shown that, in mice at least, congeners that seep into a whisky from the oak casks in which it is aged inhibit the action of alcohol dehydrogenase, an enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the bloodstream. A 20-year-old single malt will stay with you longer than a five-year-old one.

Gin's reputation for making people maudlin might also be justified - at least in its traditional combination, with tonic. That's not, as urban myth would have it, because tonic contains quinine. Instead, the fizziness of the tonic water increases pressure in the stomach, making it empty more quickly. This gets you drunker faster because the gin spends less time in contact with the stomach lining, which helps break alcohol down into chemicals that can't be absorbed. The effect is compounded with diet mixers, possibly because the sugar in normal mixers makes the stomach treat them as food, letting the drink spend longer in there being broken down.

Lay off the caffeinated mixers, too, if you want to get home safely. Researchers from Britain's University of Bristol showed last year that caffeine mixed with alcohol might give us slightly faster reactions, but it also makes us clumsier. Because caffeine wakes us up, we also keep on drinking for longer, washing away our inhibitions. Vodka with an energy drink may give you wings, but it won't stop you falling in a river.

It's not just about what we drink, but how we drink it, says Vijay Ramchandani, of the United States National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Whether we take shots of hard liquor or sip wine or gulp beer affects how quickly ethanol enters the blood and therefore how quickly we get drunk. As research from the Swedish National Board of Forensic Medicine shows, drinking on an empty stomach slows the elimination of alcohol from the bloodstream for both sexes, although women are better off than men: they can process alcohol faster because their livers are larger in relation to their bodies.

In all this, there is an elephant in the bottle: our mental relationship with alcohol.

"It is extremely difficult to disentangle the pharmacological and psychological effects of a drug that has such a global effect on the brain," says Sally Adams, a psychologist at the University of Bristol, who was part of the team that looked into caffeinated mixers.

How we expect to feel when we drink can have a huge effect on how we do feel, and some of those expectations can be culturally learned. If we anticipate that wine will relax us but not make us as incapable and drunken as beer or spirits, then that might be exactly what happens. What's more, "it's most likely that different types of people choose to drink different types of drinks, and there is always a self-fulfilling prophecy", says Damaris Rohsenow, of the Centre for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University, in the US.

So perhaps champagne just makes us merry because that's how we are - because we expect it to. Certainly, the company we keep plays a part in how drunk we become as well. Having sozzled people around us means we begin to behave more drunkenly - even if we're relatively sober. One study involving tasks testing psychomotor skills similar to those used when driving showed significantly lower performance among those who received feedback from peers who seemed drunk, even if those doing the tests had been drinking a placebo.

So, while you are indulging over the Lunar New Year holiday, be aware: it's not just how much you drink, but what you are drinking, how you are drinking it and who you are drinking it with. Cheers!

New Scientist

 

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